In researching The Dead Hand, my book about the end of the Cold War arms race, I came across a memo that was drawn up to illustrate a global nuclear disarmament plan announced by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev on Jan. 15, 1986. Gorbachev's three-phase plan called for liquidation of all nuclear weapons in the world by the year 2000.
The plan was dreamy and propagandistic, but it immediately caught the attention of U.S. President Ronald Reagan. When Secretary of State George Shultz went to discuss it with his boss, Reagan turned to Shultz and asked, "Why wait until the end of the century for a world without nuclear weapons?"
More than 24 years after Gorbachev's proposal, 18 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union and 10 years beyond the deadline Gorbachev proposed for global zero, there are still 23,000 nuclear weapons remaining in the world.
Now President Barack Obama has a chance to make real headway in finally ending the Cold War arms race. So far, his rhetoric has been lofty, but actions few. In the next few months his promises and speeches will be tested by a series of key events and decisions. The Nuclear Posture Review, the first since 2001 and the third since the end of the Cold War, is to be sent to Congress soon; a new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) is nearing completion with Russia; a nuclear materials security summit is to be held in Washington in April; a new push is to be made for ratification of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty; and there's a review conference for the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty in May. And that's just what's on the calendar; there's no telling what unexpected nuclear proliferation and security challenges will arise from Iran, North Korea, South Asia, or elsewhere.
Obama's presidency has reached the point where his great ambitions -- articulated in his campaign, and a speech last year in Prague -- must be followed by bold actions. If Obama wants to really slash nuclear arsenals, he'll have to go well beyond the much-anticipated new START treaty, which appears to be just another incremental reduction, not a deep cut .
The status quo is not good enough. In the years since the Soviet collapse, we've been wandering in a Cold War fog, a mindset that someday we might need all those nuclear warheads, so let's keep them. The temptation is always to leave things as they are, or make only small changes on the margins.